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Transition to Work

Coconino High School graduate Abel Johnson stocks rows of flowers at Warner’s Nursery. Johnson was part of the Transition from School to Work Program, which helps assist high school students with disabilities transition into adult life.

Flagstaff Unified School District’s Transition to Work program has helped numerous high school graduates, like Abel Johnson, with special needs graduate with the skills they need to succeed in life and provide local employers, like Warner’s Nursery & Landscape Co., with loyal, committed employees.

The program prepares students with physical or mental disabilities by teaching them soft skills, said Coconino High School Transition Facilitator Russell Randall. Skills such as how to fill out a job application, a college application, proper work etiquette, creating a resume, job shadowing, job interviews and what to expect in the work place. The program provides each student with one-on-one mentoring and helps them assess the best path for them after high school.

The district also has Community Work Program, that puts the students into a monitored workplace at the high school’s Community Free Store, Panther Print Shop and providing landscaping services for free to the disabled or elderly, he said. Students are also placed in jobs at local animal shelters, Savers, Killp and Puente de Hozho schools, the Family Food Center, other nonprofits and some local businesses. Students can even earn school credit for their work. In order to collect credit, students have to submit pay stubs or a work log and two positive work evaluations that have been signed by their employer or work supervisor.

Any student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is eligible to apply for the program, he said. The school district will help parents and students complete an application for a referral to the program. Since 2008, the program has helped more than 225 students, Randall said. Funding for the program comes from the school district and the Rehabilitation Services Administration from the U.S. Department of Education.

Johnson, who has a traumatic brain injury and occasionally has seizures, graduated from the program about three years ago and has been working steadily at Warner’s ever since. He started with the program at age 15 and is now 24.

“It’s made a huge difference in his life,” said his uncle, Mark Lopez. Johnson lives with Lopez and his wife Carol. “He’s a more well-rounded person with a sense of responsibility. He gives his aunt $100 a month to help with the household expenses.”

Johnson arrives early in the morning to help open and set up at Warner’s and works until about 11 a.m. He travels back and forth to work on his own on his bike.

“I help take out the trash and the recycling, dust, water plants, keep the restrooms clean, wipe down the counters, whatever they need me to do,” he said. “I like working there. I’m able to go outside. It keeps me busy.”

Randall said employers are often surprised by how loyal, enthusiastic and independent employees with disabilities can be. Most employees with disabilities require little to no special accommodations in the workplace. Their attention to detail, work-ethic and safety record is often as good or better than their non-disabled co-workers.

They do sometimes need a little help learning how to get along with co-workers, but everyone experiences that in the workplace, Randall said.

“He’s incredibly self-sufficient,” Misti Warner, the owner of Warner’s said. “Once he finishes a project, he’ll come to me for something else to do. He always arrives on time or early. Sometimes he arrives before we open. It’s nice to work with someone who is excited to come to work each day.”

Warner said Johnson provides a bit of sunshine for her and the nursery’s other employees. He has a great outlook on life, she said. He’s excited every time a truck full of supplies comes in. Unpacking a truck can be a lot of heavy, hard work at a nursery and there are days, Warner said, when she’s just not into the idea of unpacking one. But Johnson is always thrilled when a truck comes in and he’s able to help. His enthusiasm puts a smile on the faces of everyone else, she said.

Warner said she was approached by the program several years ago as a possible summer employer for special needs students. Employers can get some tax credits and training for hiring employees who have a disability, but Warner said the real benefit is the employees.

“Everyone deserves to have the same opportunity,” she said.

The reporter can be reached at sadams@azdailysun.com or (928)556-2253.

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Education/Business Reporter

Suzanne writes about education and business. She covers the local school district, charter schools and Northern Arizona University. She also writes the Sunday business features.

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